Ben Saunders Sets Out on the Expedition of a Lifetime
The polar explorer talks about the gear, prep, and mental conditioning necessary to undertake what he hopes will be longest unsupported polar journey in history
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Ben Saunders is the third in history to ski solo to the North Pole and holds the record for the longest solo Arctic journey by a Brit. This month, Saunders and two other adventurers began their attempt to walk to the South Pole from Ross Island, Antarctica. At 1,800 miles over the course of four months it will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history, and the first completion of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition. British Naval Officer Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the South Pole in 1910. His party of five reached their destination on January 17, 1912, shortly after Norwegian Roald Amundsen had claimed the first visit, and planted his own country’s flag there. On the return trek, in 1913, Scott and his team all perished.
We caught up with Saunders at his home in London to talk about his expedition, Scott 2013.
OUTSIDE: Why this particular expedition now?
SAUNDERS: The fact that the journey hasn’t been finished is the most compelling reason. Scott is iconic, a household name in the UK. And his expedition was a poignant tragedy. His route has never been completed. The Scott expedition covered 1600 miles before its demise, and no one has eclipsed that yet. Scott set the bar 100 years ago. With everything that’s been learned about training, nutrition and the incredible advances in equipment, how come no one attempted to repeat and complete his fantastic journey?
Can you put it in real-world terms for us?
Three of us will be covering 69 marathons back-to-back, pulling twice our body weight. We will be there as professional polar explorers, not tourists, not the bumbling explorers of yore. There is a misconception that “it’s all been done,” particularly in Antarctica. It’s fueled by the fact that any tourist with enough money can fly nine tenths of the way to the South Pole and then walk or ski the last bit with a guide. Visiting the South Pole in itself is no longer noteworthy. Even though there are plenty of high-profile celebrities doing contrived stunts in Antarctica, there are still valid genuinely pioneering journeys to be done.
I am hoping we arrive there midday and can turn around and leave immediately. It will be a tempting place to stop—there are hot showers, a tourist gift shop, and a DVD loaner library. It will be a pretty strange feeling—encountering buildings, trash, vehicles, fuel drums, all this stuff after two months of essentially sensory deprivation. I am both looking forward to it and dreading it.
The news is reporting the lowest polar ice levels in known history. What does that mean for your expedition?
Ice or lack thereof won’t affect us. Sea ice profoundly affects North Pole expeditions. And because of shrinking sea ice, it won’t be long before it’s not possible to walk or ski to the North Pole as I did. The days of those sorts of expeditions are numbered. It’s peculiar how few people understand the Arctic–that the North Pole is in the middle of the sea with nothing else around for 5.5 million square miles is beyond most people’s conception.
Can you describe a typical day on your Antarctica expedition?
Regardless of daylight, and it will be light for most of the day, we always stick to a 24-hour schedule—it makes communication with the outside world much simpler.
Each day, we’ll wake up—three of us are sharing one tent with a stove and porch at one end, we’ll melt snow for a hot drink and our insulated water bottles—two or two and a half liters per day per person. We’ll eat breakfast, then it’s a race to get out of the tent, pack sledges, and to ski for around nine hours.
We break it up into hour or hour and a half chunks, all skiing inline with one person navigating and time keeping, all three pulling sledges. Every hour or hour and a half, we’ll stop for five to ten minutes, eat drink, film, swap gloves for mittens or otherwise tweak our gear. Every day we’ll experience a wide range of temperatures and wind speeds, so we’ll layer up or down, swap goggles for glasses, and fiddle with our layers.
The evening is for updating website, phone calls to journalists, family, sponsors … And at night we do all the little jobs. Things break, there is always sewing, mending, maintaining, stretching, then we crawl into our sleeping bags and do it all again.
In your blog, you talk about creating and following a new nutrition regimen for polar explorers. How is what you will eat different a typical “polar adventurer” diet?
When I did my first expedition 11 years ago, it intrigued me that contemporary polar expeditions typically eat a high fat diet when other endurance athletes focus on replenishing their glycogen stores with a more carbohydrate intensive diet.
Really, a polar expedition is the ultimate ultra endurance event. When we walk to the South Pole, we will walk the same distance that cyclists in the Tour de France ride, and we’ll burn a similar number of calories. Tour de France riders don’t skip eating for five hours and then finally hunker down with a stick of butter—though that’s how polar expeditions typically dine.
My background is in endurance sports: mountain bike racing, running, etc. And I am a physiology nerd. So I thought it strange that every other endurance athlete seemed to be using relatively high carbohydrate diets and eating frequently. I postulated that perhaps matching calories in versus calories out on paper wasn’t the best way to insure proper nutrition. I’ve used the glycogen replacement strategy on several expeditions, and instead of coming back to civilization on exhausted and emaciated and on death’s door, I came back healthy and energetic if somewhat thinner.
How do you train to walk to the South Pole? Is there an aspect of mental training?
All the team members have done numerous big expeditions in the broad field of adventure. My teammate Al Humphreys cycled around world 46,000 miles including through Siberia in winter. My other teammate Martin Hartley is polar specialist and this will be his 23rd expedition. The more experience you have in those environments, the easier the mental piece becomes.
You had one North Pole expedition halted by a broken ski binding eight days into the trip. It seems absurd that this type of gear failure can instantly end an expedition that you’d been planning for a years. Has it changed how you prepare for potential gear failure?
That broken binding wasted $250,000 of sponsorship and a year of planning. I had never seen that particular failure before—though I have replicated it since.
One of the problems for polar explorers is that there is no commercial market for what we’re doing. I can’t walk into REI and say “I need to pull 400 pounds in -45°F, what ski bindings should I take?” No one makes a ski binding like that. We’re often using stuff made from scratch, or taking gear so far beyond its intended use it puts it under an extraordinary amount of strain.
One of most difficult balancing acts is figuring out how much spare kit to take with you. Speed and safety are dictated by how much weight we’re pulling. It’s a tough balancing act. The trip with the broken binding was as ultralight as I could go for a traverse of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada. It was a trip where everything stripped down to nothing. Antarctica will be a longer, slower trip. We have two sets of skis each. We’ll have spare poles, maybe even spare boots.
What do you consider your most reliable gear?
MSR XGK stoves. They’re extraordinarily reliable—stalwart. Often on expeditions you’re buying fuel that is dirty and nasty. The XGK can handle it. And the throbbing hiss of it fired up full force is the most reassuring sound imaginable—it’s the sound of safety and security. Without a stove, in the polar regions, you won’t have water, and without water, you won’t survive long.
When you first reached the North Pole, you were the youngest to do so. What do you think about young athletes trying to reach the summit of Everest, climb the seven summits, sail across the Atlantic alone? Is there an age at which it’s too young to be exploring the limits of your potential in this way?
I sort of feel uncomfortable about slew of teenage firsts. Often, it seems to be parents living vicariously through these achievements. But I’d be last person to discourage anyone from taking on this adventurous challenge.
Looking back I served a long apprenticeship before I got into something big. I worry that people become fixated on enormous goals. I worry that people want to take the shortest route to “firsts.” The team was just training in Greenland’s Watkins Mountains, where most of the peaks haven’t been climbed or named. There was no one else there at all. We were in Greenland at the same moment that people were queuing on Everest. Those queues make me feel very uncomfortable. Though I realize that I am partly responsible.
Is this a career that you accidentally fell into and now it’s what you do? Or is this something you’ve been moving towards your whole life.
It’s a childhood dream come true. I loved reading about explorers and adventurers and people doing pioneering stuff outdoors. Then I spent a year in my late teens working for John Ridgway—the first person to row Atlantic, which he did in 1966. He founded an adventure school in the Scottish Highlands. I worked there when I was 18-19. That was the year that the screw came loose. Ridgeway was a hero of mine. I was an impressionable age. And I wanted to do something that great too.
What does your mom think?
My mom is my biggest fan, and she was my first ever sponsor, I think she has the hardest time of it, When I first went to the North Pole with Penn Hadow, my polar mentor, I was 23, he was in his 40s. His wife was fine with him going on a massive expedition, but his mom was a wreck. Moms don’t ever really think of you as a man, regardless of your age, they think of you as vulnerable 11-year old school boy.
Now on expeditions, we have telephone, and I blog every night. My mom now says that the communication is too intimate.
Do Polar Explorers take performance-enhancing drugs?
I’ve never been dope tested. I think Captain Scott had cocaine in his first aid kit, but we don’t.
Is this kind of expedition fun? Is there some kind of internal clock that is always driving you to the next extreme trip?
Part of me does fear that expeditions are like a crack habit or something. There’s a danger that it becomes an all-consuming obsession.
Some of happiest days of my life and most awe-inspiring moments of my life have been on expedition. No rock concert, no art gallery has taken me close to those experiences. But there is never a day in civilization that is so shitty as the worst days on expedition. There have been days I wished I could fall over and break my leg so I could get out of wherever I was with ego intact. It’s the intensity of experiences, the scale, majesty, beauty of places, genuine wilderness. To be somewhere with no sign of anything man-made is really special
Follow Saunders expedition prep at scottexpedition.com. Learn more about Ben Saunders and his expeditions at bensaunders.com, and listen to Saunders TED talk.